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Best of 2023: In conversation with Helen Garner

  • 04 January 2024
Arguably Australia’s most celebrated living author, Helen Garner has built a reputation as a fearless and unapologetic writer whose work has remained fresh and relevant for over 45 years. Known for her unflinching focus on the complexities of relationships, particularly between the sexes, her writing has captivated readers with its raw and honest portrayal of the human experience. Her debut novel Monkey Grip has never gone out of print. Hers is a career that has earned endless accolades and awards, including the Order of Australia for her contributions to literature. While often labelled as a feminist writer, Garner's work defies any genre or label, rather meticulously and honestly drawing from her own experiences, observations and sense of wider accountability. Eureka Street's Paul Mitchell sat down with Helen to delve into the challenges of writing confessional non-fiction, her fondness for church, and her commitment to unsparing self-analysis. 

PM: The last time I saw you, we were watching your granddaughter sing at a bar and some girls who were about 18 came up to you and said how much they loved your work. That must be gratifying.

HG: Enormously, yes. It surprises me because, when I published The First Stone (1995), it was made clear to me by the shock troops of feminism that I was completely out of date. So, I've always been surprised in subsequent years when women come up to me with teenage daughters holding a copy of Monkey Grip (1977) and asking me to sign it. I find that terribly touching.

But I suppose, in another way, the fact that Monkey Grip has never gone out of print in 45 years shows that things between men and women haven't really changed all that much. People would pick up that book and go, ‘Oh God, isn't she supposed to be a feminist?’ And some people have thought that about my last book [How to End a Story: Diaries 1995–1998 (2021)], ‘Look, she's taking all this shit and she's not fighting back. What's the matter with her? Isn't she supposed to be a feminist?’

PM: Regardless, though, people have always been drawn to the honesty in your writing — what some call its unflinching nature, maybe even its pugnacity …

HG: Do you mean that story called ‘The Insults of Age’ when I pulled that girl's ponytail in the street? (laughs) That was pugnacious. I don't know if my writing’s pugnacious in general though.

The French